Walt Disney's Song of the South is today one of the lesser known Disney films. We remembered as a wonderful film from our childhood. The Uncle Remus story, however, has become the most controversial of all the Disney films. Some considered racially insensitive and is unlikely to be re-released in the United States in the near future. Song of the South was in many ways a ground breaking film, both in the mixing of live action and animation and, for the 1940s, a rather progressive mixed racial film. We can think of few films before the 1960s in which a Black sactor had such a possitive role. Johnny, one of the main characters in the film, wears a forrest green velvet Fauntleroy suits and lace collar--which he detests. He also appears in a sailor suit.
Joel grew up poor in Putnam Country, Georgia in the years leading up to the Civil War. His farther was a day-laborer and deserted his mother even befor Joel's birth sometime about 1845-48. This meant poverty at a time when the husband was the principal bread winner. Joel and his mother lived on charity. Slavery still existed when Joel was a boy. Joel as a boy was fascinated by stories he heard as a child. I am not sure what Joel did during the Civil War which began when he was 13-16 years. Many youths his age served in the War.
At a very young age, about 14, Joel began working at a newspaper. He became known for his ability to write humerous articles. It was not only the actual stories that made his writing so appealing, but his ability write dialect that seemed to capture the cadences of Black dialect. Harris began sending his articles to several different Georgia newspapers. He was hired by the Atlanta Constitution (1876). The Atlanta Constitution was the leading newspaper in the South and Harries became known for his stories throughout the South. Harris moved to Atlanta and lived there throughout the rest of his life. He began to seriusly collect stories that he first remembered from his Georgia boyhood. This was well before the development of modern folklore studies or cultural anthropology. Harris insists that his stories were based on actual slave fambles. He ganered stories from many former slaves, but his favoirite sourse was an elderly foormer slave who he called "Uncle George"--of course the inspiration for Uncle Remus. His beloved dialect stories were written as tales told Uncle Remus. Harris created Uncle Remus as a elderly former slave who used his imaginative creatures like Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox, a half century before Disney, to entrance a little White boy. The stories and wonderful woodland creatures enengage children while essentially telling morality stories. In fact one is remined of Aesop's fables when reading Harris stories. Initially the stories were articles written for adults in the Atlanta Constitution, but proved popular not only throughout the South, but in the North as well. The books were eventually translated into nearly 30 different languages. Harris was one of the earliest syndicated newspaper columnists in America. These stories in many ways was the first introduction of many White Americans, especially in the North, to Black America. The stories were eventually published as anthologies in book form. They became very popular children's books. Harris published a collection of folk poems and proverbs, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1881). Other books included Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892), and Uncle Remus and the Little Boy (1905). Although Harris did not initially write his stories for children, these anthogies became popular children's story books. I'm not sure if they was any sectional differences in the popularity of the books. I do remember my dad reading some of the stories to ne in the 1940s and I was enchanted with them. Harris did not only write his wonderful dialect stories, but became a respected editorial writer as well. The thrust of his editorials was the building of the New South--putting past sectional conflicts behind and playing a consructive role in building a unified country.
Disney released Song Of The South on November 1, 1946. The
story line was written by Dalton Raymond, but was based on one of the Joel Chandler Harris anthologies--Tales of Uncle Remus. The movie was a land mark Disney production. It combined animation and live action. A novel concept for the day. Prior to Song of the South, Disney had mastered the marriage of live-action film footage with animation. However, Song of the South represented the first time that Disney made a film which was primarily live-action and interspersed with animated sequences. Conversely, one 1 year before the release of Song of the South , Disney brought us The Three Caballeros which used animation as the primary element and live-action as secondary. It wasn't until 1964 that live-action and animation met on screen once more in the classic Disney film, Mary Poppins . The brilliant animated sequences of Song of the South are considered by many experts to be some of the greatest animation every created. In them, Brier Rabbit, the "most outdoin'est, bodacious critter in the whole world," out-smarts the crafty Brier Fox and the lumbering Brier Bear. And as Uncle Remus said, that's "mighty satisfaction."
Johnny is of course played by Bobby Driscoll in his first Disney film. Hollywood has many sad stories about child actors who were unable to make the transition to adult film careers. Perhaps the most tragic is that of Bobby
Driscoll. Bobby was born March 3, 1937 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was perhaps the best known child star in the 1940s and early 50s. Bobby's parents moved to Los Angeles in 1943 and a local barber insisted that Bobby
should audition for the movies. As a result Bobby landed a small role in Lost Angel opposite child star Margaret O'Brien. A hard worker and natural actor, he soon had offers from different studios. Unlike some of the
sickingly-sweet 1930s child actors, Bobby delivered charming, believable performances. He played in So Goes My Love with Myrna Loy and Don Amechee. Loy
remarked, "He has so much charm, if Don Amechee and myself aren't on our toes all the time, we know that the audience would be looking at the youngster and ignoring us." Ameche said, "He has talent and I've worked with a
lot of child actors in my time, but done of them bore the talent that seems apparent in young Driscoll." His performances in Song of the South, The Window, and Treasure Island are Hollywood classics.
Other cast members included: Sally (Ruth Warrick), Uncle Remus (James Baskett), Ginny (Luanaa Patten), grandmother (Lucile Watson), Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDaniel), Toby (Glenn Leedy), The Favers Boys (George Nokes, Gene Holland), John (Erik Rolf), Mrs. Favers (Mary Field), maid (Anita Brown), Brier Fox (James Baskett), Brier Bear (Nicodemus Stewart), and Brier Rabbit (voice: Johnny Lee). It is the Uncle Remus character portrayed by James Baskett that has subsequently been sharply criticised by some. Interestingly, Baskett who the first live Black actor hired by bthe Disney studio. He also was awarded a special Oscar for his depiction of Uncle Remus. The character as played by Baskett provided a rather progressive mixed racial film. We can think of few films before the 1960s in which a Black sactor had such a possitive role. Bklack men were normally portrayed as servants are weak-willed nonentities in American films. Thevone exception was cameo roles made for Black musicians and dancers. While having the lead role in the film, Baskett reportedly was unable to attend the film's premiere which was held in Harris' cityin Atlanta because hotels would not give him a room. There may be more to this story as surely a large city like Atlanta would have had Black hotels.
Song of the South was a musical with some memorable songs. The songs included "How Do You Do?" "Song of The South," "That's What Uncle Remus Said," "Sooner or Later," "Everybody's Got a Laughing Place," "Zip-a-dee Doo-Dah," "Let the Rain Pour Down," and "Who Wants to Live Like That?".
"Song of the South" is set in the Deep South (Georgia) just after the Civil War. As critics often point out, it is an idelic portrayal of race relations. But as they too often fail to preceive, not every relationship betwwen blacks and whites at the time was a dark one. And race relations was just one topic the film touches on. The other, and of greater importance to the plot, is the impact of divorce on children. The main character is 7-year old Johnny, beautifully played by Bobby Driscoll. Johnny is a city boy. At the beginning of the movie, he is excited about what he believes to be a vacation in the country on his grandmother's plantation. He is not yet aware his parents, John Sr. and Sally, are going to separate. "The Song of the South" follows the same basic format used by Harris in his writing. The film is basically a live action film about Jonny, a lonely little boy, whose parents caught between his parents who are planning a divorse. After they reach the plantation, Johnny finds that his parents will be living apart. He will stay with his mother and grandmother while his father goes back to Atlanta where he is the controversial editor of the city's newspaper. Johnny is deeply troubeled because he has never been separated from his father before. His father quite leaves at night. Johnny runs away and is attracted by the voice of Uncle Remus to a small group sitting around the fire. By this time he is missed sand the servsants are sent out to find him. Johnny is drawn to kindly Uncle Remus who has an inexhautable collection of stories to help take Johnny's mind off his troubles, As Uncle Remus begins each story, the live action disolves into a animated story with Brier Rabbit, Brier Fox, and Brier Bear. Each of the three stories has a moral which of course apply to a problen Johnny is encountering.
Johnny wears a velvet knee pants suit with white stockings. He wears his velvet suit with a lace collar. He
was not happy about having to wear the lace collar. Johnny did not appear for larger periods of the film. The
heart of the film was the wonderfully animated animal stories. Johnny also wore a sailor suit. I'm not sure precisely what year the film was set in, its been many years since I saw it. Presumably about 1890. I notice one source refers to the ante-bellum (pre-Civil War) era. This would mean before 1861-65. If so there are some serious problems with the costuming. Even if ot is sfter the War, the costuming seems a little more like the 1880s than the 60s. The forest green kneepants velvet suit Johnny wears does seem to be a fairly standard suit such as was worn
in the 1880s snd 90s. Note that it is a collar buttoning suit which covers up the front. Johnny's lace collar played a part in the film. He didn't like it, especially after other boys started teasing him. The choice of white stockings is interesting. It was much more common to wear dark stockings at the time. Children still in dresses and girls were the most likely to wear long stockings. Johnny also wears a light-blue sailor suit which he liked more than his velvet suit. The sailor suit notably has trim with only two stripes. This definitely was not a style worn in the 1860s or even the 70s. Johnny's little friend Ginny (Luanaa Patten) wears a pinafore. These don;t show up much in the actual photgraphic record because girls dressed up for formal stufio portraits.
I can remember as a young child seeing Song of the South. Some of the songs, Zip-a-dee Doo-Dah have stuck with me to this day. I can also remember having the Joel Chandler Harris read to me. The film was one of the first Hollywood efforts to preach racial tolerance. I think now that the film had a big impression on me in that regard although as a child it was the wonderful animal stories that I was intrigued with. The film does gloss over the horrors of slavery. What I remember as a child, beyond being enchanted by the animal characters was the friendship between Johnny and Toby (the black boy) and the loving character of Uncle Remus. These are the first really positive depictions of blacks that remember seeing as a boy. HBC would be very interested to know if other HBC readers saw the film as children and if so what was the impressuon they took away from the film.
Disney has been involved with controvrsies over several of its animated films ("Pochoantas" and "Sinbad"). With these films the problem appears to be with the animation. Caracture has often been use to portray racial groups in a negative light, and much of the criticsm of these films is related consists of charges of sterotypical depiction.
The first of these cotroversies over Disney fims was criticisms of "Song of the South". The film was not initially controversial when in first appeared after World War II. Disney has had one re-relase of "Song of the South", in 1956. Disney has chosen to to re-relase the film since criticisms appeared in the more politically correct 1960s. Many Blacks have sharply criticized "Song of the South", in this instannce not for the animation, but for the live-action portions of the film. Their concerns raise some interesting issues about the depiction of Blacks in the South. The primary concern about the film is Uncle Remus. Because he is portrayed as a happy, light-hearted character many Blacks view the film as giving a eroniously positive image of slavery and the treatment of blacks after the Civil War. (The film is set after the Cibil War. Thus while slavery is not depicted, being sent it the ante-bellum south, the Blacks depicted except the youngest would have grown up as slaves.) Many Blacks are also uncomfortable with the use of dialect.
Some assessments are extremely critical of the film. Patricia A. Turner, a noted fore-lorist writes:
"Disney's 20th century re-creation of Harris's frame story is much
more heinous than the original. The days on the plantation located in
"the United States of Georgia" begin and end with unsupervised
blacks singing songs about their wonderful home as they march to
and from the fields. Disney and company made no attempt to to
render the music in the style of the spirituals and work songs that
would have been sung during this era. They provided no indication
regarding the status of the blacks on the plantation. Joel Chandler
Harris set his stories in the post-slavery era, but Disney's version
seems to take place during a surreal time when blacks lived on slave
quarters on a plantation, worked diligently for no visible reward and
considered Atlanta a viable place for an old black man to set out for."
"Kind old Uncle Remus caters to the needs of the young white boy
whose father has inexplicably left him and his mother at the
plantation. An obviously ill-kept black child of the same age named
Toby is assigned to look after the white boy, Johnny. Although Toby
makes one reference to his "ma," his parents are nowhere to be
seen. The African-American adults in the film pay attention to him
only when he neglects his responsibilities as Johnny's playmate-keeper. He is up before Johnny in the
morning in order to bring his white charge water to wash with and keep him entertained."
"The boys befriend a little blond girl, Ginny, whose family clearly represents the neighborhood's white trash. Although Johnny coaxes his mother into inviting Ginny to his fancy birthday party at the big house, Toby is curiously absent from the party scenes. Toby is good enough to
catch frogs with, but not good enough to have birthday cake with. When Toby and Johnny are with Uncle Remus, the gray-haired black man directs most of his attention to the white child. Thus blacks on the plantation are seen as willingly subservient to the whites to the extent that they overlook the needs of their own children. When Johnny's mother threatens to keep her son away from the old gentleman's cabin, Uncle Remus is so hurt that he starts to run away. In the world that Disney made, the blacks sublimate their own lives in order to be better servants to the white family. If Disney had truly understood the message of the tales he animated so delightfully, he would have realized the extent of distortion of the frame story." [Turner, p. 114.]
There is no doubt that the depictions of slavery is a legitimate issue to discuss. Too often American films have adopted the highly misleading depiction fostered by the romantic myth of the South showing happy, compliant slaves singing in the fields while picking cotton. Rarely have issues such as the violence and cruelty of the system, splitting children from their families, laws against educating chilren, rape of Black women and girls, and other issues. The same is true ebven of history and only in recent years after accurate depictions of slavery began to dominate among American historians.
HBC believes that the Song of the South has wonderful artistic merits. I remember lovung the stories and the film as a child nd am still charmed by the film. Of course artistry alone does not make the film acceptable. There are numerous excellent films that are not acceptable to us today ("birth of a Nation" and Triumph of the Will" are two examples). We believe that it is true that there is no hint in the film about conditions for Blacks in the ante-bellum south other than Whites are affluent and Blacks are poor--an impression primarily conveyed by costuming. The question we ask, does every film set after the War have to depict the terror under which Blavks lived. Here we would be much more critical if this was a film for adults. But this is a film for very young children. I recall this film very vidly as a child. Te overwealming impression I took away from the film was what a nice old man Uncle Remus was and what wonderful stories he told. We woonder if that very possitive message is not a wonderful result of the film which makes the film appropriate for modern showings. We say that within the context that many white children in America grow up fearful of Black men. We would feel somewhat differently if Uncle Remus was the only meduia depiction of Blacks. Mdern media, however, depicts Blacks in wide variety of roles. This is another issue. Avrually we wonder if the Harris/Disney depiction of Black men is not more possitive that quite a number of modern media depictions.
A German reader tells us, "The title of "Song of the South" in Germany is: "Onkel Remus' Wunderland". From time to time it is shown on TV and it is availavle in many video shops. It hasn't been released as DVD yet. While it it is no problem to show this film in Germany it "is a problem to show some other things. There is one episode of "Star Trek and one episode of "Mission Impossible" that were never broadcasted (until today) here because the story
has to do with NAZIs.
Turner, Patricia A. Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies (New York: Anchor Books, 1994).
Navigate the Boys' Historical Fauntleroy movie pages:
[Main movie page]
[Main Fautleroy movie page] [Main alphabetical Sm-Sr movie page] [Main Fautleroy page]
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]